Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Keeping the Wrong Statistics. . .

We are enamored with facts and figures.  We publish books to tell us the biggest this or the smallest that, the most of this and the least of that. . .  We give a certain notoriety to people who can bake the biggest pizza in the world or eat the most hot dogs.  It is, perhaps, our penchant for the moment since we know death can take our lives from us at any time.  So we gravitate for comfort to statistics. . . who has the most number of Facebook friends.  It is too easy for us to  become victims of our fears and to find both comfort and security in numbers.

The Church is no less tempted by such things.  We hear all the time about how many people churches worship (what an odd expression, really) or how many dollars supported the work of the kingdom in that place (even though the bulk of them might be spent on creature comforts for the folks already there).  Pastor are also easily intimidated by the almighty reign of numbers to define success, worth, and value.  How many of us mumble our numbers out when someone asks how large is the congregation we serve?  We have learned to be comforted by big numbers, intimidated by size, shamed by small numbers, and marginalized by our diminutive statistics.

Before I go on, I must say one thing.  I am in no way suggesting that lazy pastors and self-centered parishes are justified in failing to be anything less than robust in their witness and generous in their service to those beyond the pale of the Sunday attendance.  No one ought to be comfortable behind locked doors, facing a shrinking congregation, while refusing to carry the Word and work of the kingdom to those not yet of that kingdom.  If we do all we are able to do and the church does not grow, fine.  But if we have done nothing except wait for God to produce a miracle, then we should not be commended for choosing to bide our time while unmistakable opportunities to speak boldly God's Word of rescue and act compassionately on behalf of those in need have passed us by.

That said, the success of the Church and of the particular parish and its pastor are not testified simply in numbers.  Christ has never promised nor suggested that the Church would eventually dominate the world.  Just the opposite, Jesus wondered if He would find faith on earth when He comes in His glory.  As tempting and as easy as numbers and statistics are to define our success and give us value in what we do, we dare not allow only these to define us.

In fact, if these are the only statistics we keep, we are keeping the wrong statistics.  The whole nature of the renewed sense of visitation in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod is born of the painful realization that the health and life of a parish and its pastor cannot be adequately ascertained by comparing last year with this year in worship attendance, baptisms, confirmations, income, etc...  Too often by the time attendance and money indicate problems, another indicator has already been sounding an alarm.  You find this out not by filling our forms and emailing them to an office; you find this out only by knowing the parish and its pastor.  You find this out by faithful visitation.  Parishes and pastors need to be transparent in what is being believed, confessed, and taught, how the work of the kingdom is approached and accomplished, whether or not the heart of the people and the heart of the whole congregation lie in the Word and Table of the Lord, whether people are being called to repentance and faithfully absolved, and whether or not the vocation of the baptized is being vigorously and intentionally encouraged.

If the only thing we know about our parishes is how many people were in church this week and last year at this same time, how many baptisms and confirmations have taken place, and how much money has come in through the offering plate, we do not know our parishes very well.  If the only statistics we keep are the ones easy to define and chart, then we are keeping the wrong statistics. 


Carl Vehse said...

"If the only statistics we keep are the ones easy to define and chart, then we are keeping the wrong statistics."

If we are keeping the wrong statistics, then we shouldn't be keeping those easy-to-define-and-chart statistics at all. However if such easy-to-define-and-chart statistics are not wrong, but simply incomplete, or provide information only on the visible church and not on efforts for the invisible church located within the visible church (we really can't keep membership, attendance, and growth rates on the invisible church itself), then what statistics could be made on measurements applicable to the invisible church?

Kirk Skeptic said...

Pr P: please clarify how you would approach a dying congregation if not with stats; while I won't accuse you of this yet, all too many articles belittling stats seem like lame attempts at sanctifying failure and salving egos. Just askin'...

Carl Vehse said...

The September 3, 2014, Reporter article, "Lower response clouds 2013 statistics for congregations," states:

"The number of LCMS congregations that reported their statistical information for 2013 stands at 3,591, which is 722 fewer congregations than those that reported statistics for 2012. The 3,591 congregations are 59 percent of the total number of Synod congregations."

So how does the Synod do their statistics when 41 percent of the LCMS congregations do not report their data for 2013? The article later states:

"The Synod’s Office of Rosters and Statistics annually compiles congregation-reported figures and amounts that congregations submit via an electronic form. To compile the statistics in the categories above, that office each year also uses the most recently reported figures from non-reporting congregations, regardless of the year for which they were reported."

Now, it may be that of the 41 percent not reporting, some congregations simply decide to skip submitting their report since their membership and other data had not changed much over the years anyway.

Or it could be that a lot of those congregations are growing by leaps and bounds and the pastors are just too busy with baptisms and catechism classes of a hundred or more catechumens and training more Sunday School teachers, they just didn't have any time to submit the forms with the large increases in membership data.

Or it could be that there were congregations with declining membership and weekly attendance, maybe some that a few years ago had increasing membership. Now with no other paid staff, they struggling to support a sole pastor. There is little incentive to report such dismal figures.

Which one of these alternatives groups of congregations is more likely to populate the 41 percent group not reporting their data is left as an exercise for the reader.